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Day 3: Boa Vista, Roraima

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The Rio Branco at Boa Vista. Recently built bridge at top of picture.
Michael Palin - BrazilRoraima is Brazil's newest state, created in 1988. It's about the same size as the UK. The capital, Boa Vista, lies beside the broad waters of the Rio Branco, recently bridged by a road carrying Highway B-74 which connects it with Manaus and the Amazon 750 kilometres (470 miles) to the south. It's an unsentimental frontier town. Though the state is home to twenty indigenous tribes and a huge area of protected land, the sympathies of Boa Vista appear to lie elsewhere. The statue that dominates the main square is of a kneeling gold prospector and there are shops painted gold where the produce of the garimpeiros is openly traded. A big American I talk to at the hotel buffet is here to look at some farmland he's bought in the north of the state. Despite the demarcation of land for Indians and the restrictions on the garimpeiros there's money to be made here. Boa Vista sees itself as the gateway to a land of opportunity.

The Public Prosecutor of Roraima State is an unequivocal supporter of the rights of the indigenous people and says that a lot of those living in Boa Vista are civil servants administering government funds on their behalf. We talk down by the river near a portentous mural depicting the great Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Rondon. He it was who, at the turn of the twentieth century, accompanied the ex-American-President Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit on many of their intrepid travels through the Amazon headwaters. Rondon had great admiration for the indigenous tribes he encountered and in 1910 he helped create the Indian Protection Service. A state called Rondonia was named after him, and indeed there are, somewhere, two small tributaries of the Amazon, one called Rio Roosevelt and the other Rio Kermit.

Rodrigo the Prosecutor and his wife Tatiana are young, bright lawyers from the South. They both manfully defend their posting up in the far North, though there's clearly not a lot going on here. He quotes a local saying: 'If a lion came to Boa Vista on a Sunday afternoon, it would die of hunger.'

Last year he suspended all mining activities in the state, but admits that it is very expensive to police such a vast area and the boundaries of protected land are difficult to pin down. Fifty gold miners have been arrested but the penalties are weak; and with the world price of gold at an all-time high there are those who will always take the risk.

He sees the future of the Yanomami being secured not by separation but by an increasing two-way exchange, with tribespeople coming to the city and outsiders visiting the malocas to get to know their way of life. Lasting protection, he feels, can only be based on mutual respect and understanding.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 3: Boa Vista, Roraima
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Boa Vista, Roraima
  • Book page no: 28

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